A cigar may sometimes be nothing but a cigar, but a package is never just a package, as Thomas Hine makes clear in his lively new book, The Total Package. Mr. Hine, a journalist who wrote the engaging Populuxe, about the emergence of consumer culture during the 1950's and early 60's, surveys the history of consumer product packaging, uncovering, as he says in the book's subtitle, The Evolution and Secret Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Tubes.
While others may think the thing within a package is important, Mr. Hine believes the material around it is, if not more important, at least more vocal, or informative, than the thing itself. Packaging reveals the relationship between ideology and culture, which is to say, the difference between how people think and how they behave. If that sounds like one of those Aristotelian distinctions-without-a-difference, consider that deciding to buy is a thought; actually buying is behavior. Anyone who understands the connection between the two understands consumerism, the engine of contemporary American society.
As the "total" of the title promises, Mr. Hine strives for comprehensiveness. He delves back into the ancient Roman Mediterranean period when utilitarian vessels that functioned as storers and transporters of oil, wine or perfume first became packages, self-consciously. Early wine vessels conveyed information on the grape, place of origin and whether the wine was sweet or dry that was at least as informative as the modern bottle label.
Mr. Hine's twirl through the ancient world is dizzyingly brief, too brief in fact to be read as anything other than an obligatory nod to the past. It also sets a tone that begins to seem glib rather than seamless after a few chapters. In The Total Package social history serves merely as a convenient drying-up rack on which to hang design insights rather than as a vital force. Mr. Hine does however resist the arcane, deadening jargon used by many of his academic counterparts among the professional semioticians. On the whole, glibness is preferable to boredom.
During Mr. Hine's quick-march toward the present, we learn that canning became critical to exploration and migration, especially into regions where no fresh food was likely to be available. As Mr. Hine wryly notes, the experience of the Donner expedition as it tried to cross the Sierra Nevadas alerted the American public to "the need for better portable foods." Alas, the canning process wasn't foolproof. While a 4-pound tin of roasted veal carried along on two of Captain W.E. Parry's trips in search of the Northwest Passage was still edible when laboratory cats tested it more than a century later, members of the Franklin expedition to the same region in 1846–48 died there, poisoned by the lead in their cans.
Mr. Hine is at his best when he moves into the origins of American consumer culture, in the mid-19th century, the period during which Americans revealed their willingness to be pulled into what he calls the "emotional life of the package." Every advance represented some juxtaposition of technological innovation, consumer attitudes and the ingenuity of the seller. Companies learned early they could persuade Americans to change their habits by appealing to fears about health. In 1901, Uneeda biscuits introduced vacuum-sealed freshness with its "In-Er-Seal" package by touting its sanitary advantages over other crackers, which were traditionally sold in bulk out of easily-contaminated grocery barrels.
Packaging errors were not easily forgiven, but could be overcome by clever marketing. A problem with the original packaging of Lifesavers torpedoed its introduction in the early part of this century, and no amount of importuning inclined grocers—who controlled a product's destiny—to give the candy a second chance once the problem was solved. The colorful rings survived only when a company marketer devised the strategy of placing them next to cash registers in saloons and selling them as breath fresheners. By the time Prohibition killed the saloon, Lifesavers had finally made it into grocery stores, still positioned next to cash registers, where they became one of the first impulse buys.
An increased understanding of the complexity of human behavior—of such apparently irrational urges like impulsiveness, for example—lay at the core of packaging as it grew more sophisticated. By the early 50's, the always thin distinction between packaging and advertising--the art of consumer persuasion--had evaporated. Researchers teased out and exploited such inexplicable human traits as the preference for circles over triangles. Louis Cheskin, a marketing psychologist, put identical products in different boxes, one marked with circles and one with triangles. Asked their preference, 80 percent of his subjects picked the product in the box with circles, because, they said, it was a better product.
"I had trouble believing the results after the first 200," Mr. Cheskin wrote later, "but after 1,000, I had to accept that many of the consumers transferred sensations from the circles on a carton cover ... to the contents of the container."
The finding that consumers "do not distinguish between a product and its package," as one of the package design textbooks says, has been replicated over and over.
Are consumers then entirely at the mercy of their instincts and the persuaders who manipulate them? Not completely. A clear premise of The Total Package is that there is an interplay between packaging and consumption. Pushed by consumers, companies have in recent history started to worry about the environmental impact of packaging. Consumers respond to company efforts. That the so-called solutions to problems posed by packaging rarely make much scientific sense hardly matters.
Another clear premise of the book is that the packaging of a product can evolve past its objective reality into a signifier—to borrow one of those boring semiotic terms—of, say, stability and comfort. In an epilogue, Mr. Hine relates that he spent some time caring for his mother, who was recovering from surgery, while he was writing The Total Package. She appeared to reject the concern of neighbors and children, which arrived in the form of homemade stews and soups, in favor of canned stews and "roasts" cooked in a bag with ready-made seasonings. Perhaps Mr. Hine has never reached for a package of Kraft's macaroni and cheese during tough times, for he seems not to have heard of the concept "comfort food." He is a forgiving son, however, and comes to read his mother's eating habits, not as an insult, but as a message and a gift: that she is still independent and able to take care of herself. It is an act of interpretation worthy of his witty and intelligent book.
Barbara Presley Noble, the former At Work and Business Book Review columnist for The New York Times, has an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in business and economic journalism at Columbia.